Intensive Workshops at the Regent Centre Studio

As requested, Laurie and I will be running intensive workshops for those who have some familiarity with the tai chi set. 

Sunday, 16 January, 2011
1-5 pm

Sunday, 6 March, 2011
1-5 pm

COST: $65

Intensives are a great way to deepen your practice. You can expect:

  • techniques that we haven't had the chance to work on in regular classes in any great depth 
  • deeper individual corrections so you can get some insight into the next level of practice for you  
  • more opportunity to explore qigong meditation
  • a more relaxed pace, so that your body has time to sink gradually into the lessons
  • more chances to practice the tai chi set in its entirety

Please let me know in person or via email at smithmk2 at if you would like to attend either or both of these dates. 

The Tai Chi Learning Spiral

In our tai chi classes (as, I would imagine, in many others), we don't talk about a learning curve: we talk about a learning spiral. I wanted to dedicate a blog post to discussing why that is, and what it has to do with beginning to walk on the tai chi path.

Many people who begin learning tai chi think that they are working toward a goal. In the beginning, it can feel that way: you want to learn the tai chi set, or perhaps you're working toward memorizing it. Maybe you want to feel more confident with the basic stepping. Or you're aiming to achieve the smoothness you've seen when other students practice.

As you train, your instructor might talk about a few different concepts: pushing from the feet; turning rather than performing lateral movements; moving the entire body as a single unit; staying relaxed at all times.

But you've got a goal to meet: you've got the tai chi set to learn. So you kind of hear what's being said, and you sort of take it in, or you think you're doing it.

Fast forward to a little while later. You pretty much know the set, and you can practice it on your own. Now what? One day, your instructor tells you to push from your back foot and gives you a little resistance as you move forward. If you want her to get out of your way, you're going to have to really use that back foot. You do it. You get that when she says push from the feet, she means really push from the feet.

You're on the tai chi spiral. As you learn, you will hear the same concepts again and again, but each time, the concept will have a deeper meaning for you because of the skills you’ve spent time building.

The next time you encounter "push from the feet," it might be part of a lesson in softness, or as part of push hands. You'll learn that you can push and relax your muscles at the same time. You'll learn that pushing effectively allows you to take your arm muscles out of the equation and perform a connected, effective technique.

In between these revelations, you'll hear the phrase "push from the feet" hundreds of times. But when the phrase really pops for you, that's when you're really learning.

There is no end to the depth of each tai chi concept. Push from the feet has a superficial meaning, but can also be completely profound.

If you're familiar with western forms of exercise, this concept will probably seem a little strange. You can become a better and better runner, for example, but once you've accomplished good technique, running up the same hill each morning is going to pretty much challenge your heart, lungs and legs in the same way.

Tai chi is different. As you train, your body and mind open up in new, very deep, ways. A tai chi set in Year One is not equal to a tai chi set in Year Four. That Year Fifteen tai chi set is many times more challenging than the Year One set - because you are able to do more, you can go deeper, open inside further, and use your energy much more profoundly. Returning to the same concepts is a little like returning over and over to visit old friends - except the friends are getting smarter, wittier, and better dressed as the years pass.

That's the tai chi spiral.

Tai Chi and Spiritual Guidance, or: Tai Chi Teachings from Beyond the Pale

In "The Tai Chi Book: Refining and Enjoying a Lifetime of Practice," Robert Chuckrow, physics PhD and tai chi practitioner since 1970, has this fascinating point to make about tai chi teachers and where they might come from:

It is possible to learn from a teacher whose identity is completely unknown to the student. This may sound unbelievable, so prepare yourself for something strange. The teacher may be a consciousness that may or may not even reside in a living body. The teacher may have died and not yet have been reborn. Or, the teacher may at present be a child who, in a past life, attained some sort of mastery. It may be that the teacher had a strong connection with the student but passed on. Or, the teacher may have had no connection in this life, but, rather, in past lives. Or, the connection may even be much less fathomable. The student may not even be consciously aware of being taught through "spirit." Such an awareness, however, can make the process more efficient. If the instruction is coming, for example, through dreams (as mine most often does), the student can do various things to increase the likelihood that contact will be made and that what is received is consciously retained upon awakening. Future contacts can be initiated by consciously desiring the contact to be made. Retention can be increased by an awareness that an important process is taking place. The knowledge that you are being helped in spirit adds an extra keenness to your receptivity.
~Robert Chuckrow, The Tai Chi Book, page 109

The idea that non-corporeal teachers were involved in my practice was floating around (har har) in the club I trained in long before I had any direct conscious awareness that I was personally receiving such guidance. And when that guidance manifested, it was really only as the barest of whispers.

I remember training up at my family cottage, in the part of Ontario just west of Algonquin park. I had my weapons, a water bottle, and time to spend all afternoon working out. One of my favourite things to do when I'm all on my own is to go through each of the sets I know one by one, usually in this order: tai chi, lok hup, hsing-i, sword, sabre. I was warming up and thinking about where I would start, and all of a sudden, I felt a strong impulse to pick up the sabre first.

"Practice your turning," a thought came through - by which I understood I should work on the spiral turn of the spine. Not "Hey, I should work on turning the spine," or, "It would be cool to practice turning my spine."

This was much more like a directive.

I silently thanked the source of the thought, thinking without fully believing that it didn't come from me, and I proceeded to practice.

Now, whenever I get the chance to do a lot of solo practice, I always start with the sabre.

I don't recommend relying exclusively on a non-corporeal teacher to learn tai chi. (Almost) everybody needs a physical, visceral human teacher to help connect with this practice. But I do believe that when we pick up a tai chi sword, or we start to learn tai chi stepping, or we practice any of the Taoist arts, a chorus of non-corporeal beings, from teachers who have passed out of the physical world to dragons to guardians, stands by ready to help us.

Tai Chi, Qigong and the Paranormal

There is something about tai chi training that people don't discuss very much, but that is a part of walking the tai chi / qigong / meditation path. Call it psychic ability, the paranormal, tuning in to energy, or whatever you want. If you do a lot of tai chi and qigong meditation, sooner or later, you'll start to see and feel...things. This can be a fascinating experience, and it will probably develop alongside your self-defense and qi skills, so there is nothing to fear.

What kinds of things?

Well, a lot of people begin by seeing auras, or the electromagnetic field that surrounds all living things. I remember years ago doing sitting meditation. I sat behind one of my friends, and as I settled into my meditation focus, a bright red layer appeared all around her head and shoulders. I knew that red typically means a heightened emotional state - it can signify that the person is angry, or that she is feeling especially lusty. I assumed it was the former situation - we were in class, after all. When I spoke to her after meditation, she told me all about the terrible day she'd had, and how frustrated and angry she was at something outrageous that had happened.

It was one of my first clear moments of knowing I'd really seen something significant.

Chances are, when you first start to see auras, you'll see them as a faint pale gold glow around people. It's easy to dismiss this as an effect of lighting or tired eyes. Just bear in mind that we are trained, especially in Western culture, to dismiss anything that isn't 100 percent verifiable by science. The more you sink into your tai chi and qigong training, the more you'll notice that not everything is what it seems. It can be a bit of a disconcerting experience, especially if you're accustomed to embracing our culture's habit of skepticism.

One of the things that happens to us as we train is that we begin to become aware of how we are affected - physically, mentally and emotionally - by our activities, by the food that we eat, by the people we spend time with, and by our surroundings. Because we develop a habit of tuning in to our physical sensations and our thoughts, we take notice when something seems intrusive or out of place.

A lot of my students experience this awakening as a sudden sensitivity to other people. As energy beings, humans toss around a lot of loose qi, usually when we're feeling strong emotions. We throw anger; we project disapproval; we send love. Once you've learned how qi feels, you can walk into a room and get an instant impression of the emotional and energetic temperature of the people there. If someone who hates you is sitting in the office you just entered, you might feel their emotional presence as a drop in the pit of your stomach. That's your qi reacting to theirs.

Back when I was doing my PhD and I taught undergrad classes, I always hated the days when I had to hand back essays. The classroom was often ripe with the students' nervousness, and I felt their fear of doing badly hit me like a wave.

One of the things tai chi can teach us is how to manage such scenarios so that we aren't quite as vulnerable to the emotional projections of others.

Another key aspect of tai chi and qigong is a sensitivity to non-corporeal energy beings that surround us. On a fundamental level, our world is composed of such energies. Not all of the sentient and mobile energies out there have physical form like we do. If you're out in the woods, and you see what look like multi-coloured or golden sparks, don't worry: your retinas probably aren't tearing (as I thought mine were the first few times I saw this phenomena). You're seeing elementals, rudimentary energies. You can feel these energies at times, too. While meditating a couple of months ago, I felt a large, sinuous form pass by me where I was sitting on the floor. A while later, a white, translucent, smiling face floated in front of me. I'd been visited by a dragon - one of the guardians of our practice.

While seeing these things doesn't make you a better tai chi practitioner, it does highlight the fact that there is layer upon layer of reality that is unacknowledged by our materialistic culture. Being able to see such things doesn't make you crazy. It's just a part of taking a deeper look at your world. One of my favourite things about walking the tai chi path is watching the world unfold before me, in ways that are constantly surprising, new and unexpected.

Masters who learn to tame their minds and emotions, and who build an intimate relationship with qi, can also use their energy for self defense. YouTube is full of videos that include demonstrations of qi manipulation, often followed by cries that they are "fake." While it's true that a lot of these videos are the qi master equivalent of professional wrestling, some offer wonderful insight into how qi manipulation works. This demonstration by Venerable Lama Dondrup Dorje of the Pathgate Institute of Buddhist Studies both shows and discusses the use of your qi bubble. While the demonstrations might look fake, the Lama's assistants are reacting to the way he is using his qi field. Enjoy.

Swimming Dragon Qigong

When  you look at another practitioner's tai chi, it's tempting, especially in the beginning, to only look at externals. Does the practitioner do the same movements you've been taught? Is she performing the movements in a way that you've been told is good? Is his hand in the right spot? Is his timing exactly like you've been told to it should be? What's that funny stuff he's doing there? Never seen that before...must be wrong!

It's far more profitable to watch a master tai chi or qigong practitioner in order to pick up what you can about style. You're not looking for the moves you know. You're looking for the how.

In this 1997 video, Liping Zhu, acupuncturist and incredible qigong artist at the Qi Dragon Healing Center in San Francisco, performs swimming dragon qigong. When you watch it, look for the power and amazing smoothness of her movements. Watch how each movement comes from the feet and is channeled through her body and out through the hands. There's no extraneous movement, and nothing flowery here. This is direct, focused, and soft movement at its best.


Tai Chi as Meditation

These days, calling tai chi "moving meditation" is pretty much a cliché. If you've never tried tai chi, or you've learned from an instructor who hasn't gone beyond the superficial levels of tai chi, you might be wondering how moving slowly and stretching your body translates into meditation.

My experience with tai chi is that the meditation part of the exercise - uh, like the exercise part of the exercise - takes time to develop, and tends to go in stages. 

At first, when you're learning tai chi, it's a matter of getting your limbs to go in the right place. There is something about beginning tai chi practice that can take a perfectly well coordinated individual and turn him into a crazy, limbs-akimbo mess. Flailing through your first beginners lessons is common - and it's also the beginning of meditation, believe it or not. Your mind is so focused on not falling down, and maybe even on cursing yourself out for not getting it right away, it's impossible to focus on anything else! You've forgotten the argument you had with the person of your affections. You've forgotten the dry cleaning you're supposed to pick up after class. Gone are the worries about whether you look fat in your workout outfit. You've got bigger things to worry about now. At least you're worrying about whether you'll ever be comfortable doing tai chi instead of the things that normally bug you.

No, this is not true meditation. But in some ways, a change is as good as a rest when it comes to taming monkey mind.

Source: National Geographic Monkey Gallery

Once you do get a bit more comfortable doing tai chi, your mind becomes more focused on achieving certain goals: memorizing the set so you can do it at home; refining your technique; trying to keep the flow going from one movement to the next. Focusing on these tasks can bring you much more peace than wondering if you'll ever "get it" (you never will, by the way, because there's always more to learn). It's still not real meditation, but it should help you to calm and centre yourself.

After a while - for some people, a few months, for others, a few years - you'll start to feel that the tai chi set is part of your muscle memory. You'll learn to sink deeply into each movement, and you'll feel waves moving in and around your body as you work. That's qi - vital life energy that flows all around you and through you. When you first start to feel qi, it can be distracting. But the more you return your body to performing correct technique, and the more you focus your mind on the purpose of each movement, the more it will flow.

You're on your way to doing tai chi meditation.

As you practice, you'll begin to feel a deep calm. It will happen from time to time at first, but the more you can access that inner stillness, the more you'll feel like you're standing at the centre of a hurricane when you do tai chi. That still centre comes from relaxing, focusing the mind, and all that technique you've absorbed as you practiced. The hurricane is one you're creating, and it's your qi that's moving around and through you.

Now you're meditating.

And you aren't just the eye of the storm. You're the storm itself. And that is awesome. That's tai chi meditation.